Opening up with an expansive wide-eyed wonder, reminding us all of those other big themed musicals like Les Misérables, the new musical, Paradise Square finds its quick footing in Manhattan’s 19th Century Five Points, centered around the strong presence of Nelly O’Brien, as portrayed forcibly by the phenomenal Joaquina Kalukango (Broadway’s Slave Play), who delivers on all the promises made. She is the central force, and a big one at that, with her hero husband, Willie O’Brien, embodied by Matt Bogart (Broadway’s Jersey Boys) standing in the background cheering her on. Standing next to her is her feisty best friend and sidekick Annie Lewis, played by the appealing Chilina Kennedy (ATC’s This Ain’t No Disco), who fills out the reason and the heart of this Five Point bar. She’s definitely a woman to be reckoned with, and not argued with. Just ask Lewis’s husband, the Reverend Samuel Jacob lewis, played well by Nathaniel Stampley (Broadway’s The Color Purple) who stands nearby willing to help all those in need. His part is a thankless one, merely there for structure and support of the greater good, as it really is these two strong-minded women that this overly ambitious story on a monstrous set swirls so swiftly around. Without their force and their dynamic sense of self, this musical would burn itself to the ground almost before the set rotated itself around even once.
Even as it stands now, Paradise Square is an overly earnest mash-up of two or three too many storylines and improbabilities, well sung and performed by a talented crew. But yet in all its glory, that show-stopping eleven o’clock number “Let It Burn,” as sung most gloriously by Kalukango, worthy of all her nominations that she has been receiving, can’t save it from its own self-destruction. The organicness of the leads translates, but they can’t quite right this incoherent musical as it throws together all of the immense struggles of the neighborhood without barely taking a breath, and it’s a neighborhood rife with conflicts, one, and only one being the increasingly volatile distrust and animosity between the Black and the Irish residents. The musical has a huge ambition, diving dynamically into America’s race issues, but it doesn’t stop there. It continues to pile on more, mashing together numerous other battles, with each of them basically big enough and powerful enough to be worthy of their own musical adaptation. If only television’s Queen bee, Shonda Rhimes was given the chance to do her magic on the story. She would have pulled the whole thing apart into smaller more concise bits for better digestion, much like she did so beautifully with Bridgeton‘s multiple possible storylines, delivering season after season of unpacked dives into each of these thrilling stories and never letting our interest falter. There’s definitely enough here for that kind of unpacking, but for one musical? Well, the whole thing just gave me a bit of indigestion for trying to swallow it all up in one viewing. It’s much too big of a meal for that.
As directed with a strong intent by Moisés Kaufman (2ST/Broadway’s Torch Song), the set for Paradise Square, designed with industrial grace by Allen Moyer (Broadway’s Grey Gardens), with beautiful costuming by Toni-Leslie James (Broadway’s Come From Away), dynamic lighting by Donald Holder (Broadway’s Tootsie), and a strong sound design by Jon Weston (Broadway’s She Loves Me), turns in and around itself, pushing forward a historical story that should be ground in emotional relevancy, but only gets more cluttered inside its random chaotic self with each rotation and revelation.
There’s political trouble, we soon find out, being stirred up between the Blacks and the Irish, thanks to the fiendishly mustache-twirling villain, Frederic Tiggens, played dastardly by John Dossett (Broadway’s War Paint) and a quick roundabout turn by the once happy Irish uncle by the name of ‘Lucky’ Mike Quinlan, played solidly by Kevin Dennis (TIFT/Birdland’s Assassins) whose newfound post-war anger sets fire to the world. This storyline could have been sufficient to draw us into the lives and troubles of the 19th-century neighborhood which this musical revolves itself around. Or maybe it could have been the story about the runaway slaves in love, living emotionally large and tense lives in the forms of the newly renamed Washington Henry, played strongly by Sidney DuPont (Broadway’s Beautiful) who, while escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad gets separated from his love, Angelina Baker, played fleetingly by the impressively emotional Gabrielle McClinton (Broadway’s Pippin). That’s a compelling idea that really does get sidelined by Washington’s competitive friendship with an oblivious and self-involved Owen Duignan, portrayed by A.J. Shively (Broadway’s Bright Star) who is fresh off the boat from Ireland hoping to make a new life in America. They each work so hard to make us feel for them both, yet to understand their impulses, we have to drink a lot of whiskey to help us swallow all that down. But boy, can the two of them dance up a storm.